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Wednesday, April 2, 2008 04:57 am

A conductor?

Lincoln neighbor likely active with Underground Railroad

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Untitled Document
The Sangamon County Courthouse in Springfield, where Jameson Jenkins filed his Certificate of Freedom, given to him when he was freed from slavery, in 1846
ILLUSTRATION COURTESY OF THE ABRAHAM LINCOLN PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM

“Eleven run away slaves, belonging to citizens of St. Louis, and for which a reward of $300 each, was offered, were captured in this county yesterday, by individuals of this city,” proclaimed Springfield’s Jan. 17, 1850 Illinois State Register. That was the first of several articles over the next week about this so-called slave stampede in Springfield. It wasn’t unusual for runaway slaves to come through Springfield, but the large number in this group must have made it stand out. Although follow-up articles in the Register and the Illinois State Journal differed in their descriptions of how large the group was and how many slaves were captured or escaped, two connected one man with the slaves — a “colored person” named “Mr. Jenkins.”
The articles are contradictory and confusing: One says Jenkins betrayed the slaves to their hunters, another says he helped them escape, and still another says he was on a stagecoach the night in question. However, they could indicate that Jenkins helped the slaves escape to Bloomington by way of stagecoach. Mr. Jenkins, it turns out, was Abraham Lincoln’s neighbor, giving his possible actions added significance. Local historian and Springfield attorney Dick Hart discovered Jenkins’ abolitionist ties. When he was researching black residents who lived in Springfield during Lincoln’s time, he came across Jameson Jenkins. Hart found that Jenkins was a black (biracial, actually) man who lived five doors south of Lincoln and that he transported Lincoln from a Springfield hotel to the train depot on the day Lincoln left for Washington, D.C., to assume the presidency. Jenkins was a drayman, a wagon owner who transported goods and people. Hart was researching another topic one day when he happened across a “Certificate of Freedom” for Jenkins. “I about fell off the chair,” he says. “The certificate describes his journey from being a slave in the Carolinas to coming to Guilford, N.C. — a Quaker town. . . . That was the hub for the Underground Railroad in the South.” Jenkins was a freeman when he traveled to Guilford, but freed blacks were sometimes captured by pro-slavery supporters and resold into slavery, so they had to be very careful when traveling. Jenkins ended up in Springfield by 1838. Hart assumes that he took the Underground Railroad at least part of the way here. According to Hart’s research, Jenkins and his family joined the Second Presbyterian Church, known as Springfield’s abolitionist church, in 1848 — two years before the slave stampede. Hart “put two and two together” and determined that the man linked to the slave stampede was Lincoln’s neighbor. (According to the 1850 Census, there was no other man named Jenkins in Springfield at that time.) The Lincoln Home National Historic Site hired intern Ebony Jenkins (no relation to Jameson) last summer to research Jenkins and prepare a nomination for his former lot to be included in the National Park Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, which helps commemorate and preserve Underground Railroad sites. (The nomination was approved.) “I wasn’t able to confirm what really happened during the slave stampede,” she says. “I believe Jenkins took the slaves (to the next Underground Railroad stop) and the articles were published to cause confusion, because by the time the stories were published Jenkins was well on his way. I think it was a decoy to distract people who might have been looking for the slaves.”
She wasn’t able to learn much more: “That was the thing I found most frustrating. That’s so common with the Underground Railroad, because it was secret. I have looked through reels and reels of microfilm [of old Springfield newspapers] to see if there was anything about him, as well as County and court records to see if charges were brought against him for [helping slaves], but there was nothing.”
Ironically, she did discover that 10 or 15 years after the slave stampede Jenkins worked for the seat of law. He was a courthouse messenger.
Even odder, Hart discovered that the abolitionist church expelled Jenkins in August 1851 — a year and half after the slave stampede — for “failing to answer charges of not attending Church meetings and licentiousness,” according to Hart’s booklet “Lincoln’s Springfield: The Underground Railroad,” published by the Sangamon County Historical Society in 2006 and available at its downtown office. A big question: If Jenkins was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, did Lincoln know it? No one knows for sure, but, says Tim Townsend, Lincoln Home historian, “my guess is that he, like many others, would have been aware of what was going on.”

Contact Tara McClellan McAndrew at TMcand22@aol.com.
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